I clicked on the link looking for something other than I what I found and then because facebook likes to suggest other things to click on I started to see the backlash against Boudinot, some of which was amusing (like the one titled “Things I Can Say About That Article Written By That Creative Writing Ex-MFA Teacher Guy Now That I’ve Read It And Gotten So Angry It’s Like My Urethra Is Filled With Bees”) but most of which I thought was overblown. I guess not everyone has worked in higher education, so Mr. Boudinot’s brash and sometimes rude criticism of his own students probably surprised most hopeful writers. Let me tell you, just because Boudinot’s the first teacher who you’ve heard say this stuff does not mean he’s the only one who thinks it. I know. Because pretty much every teacher I’ve worked with criticizes (note: bitches about) their students.
First point of clarification, I never worked in a writing program, but I was the administrative assistant to an undergrad painting program and I think there are a number of parallels that give me some insight into his perspective. Honestly when I clicked on the article I’d hoped to find a piece about how higher education is sort of akin to a pyramid scheme because I view it that way. My advice to anyone looking at an MFA program, whether in art or writing or whatever is this: instead of wasting your money on it you should just get a studio or a library card and start making your work. There were certain points that he made that alluded to this, like “woodshed-ing” (making lots of work to get better without any real hope of success) which I think was the most valuable nugget he offered.
It is true that teachers are paid to take you seriously, but when those teachers leave the classroom believe me they’ll bitch about you behind your back. I know this because a lot of the time it was in my office that the bitching occurred. Perhaps Boudinot violated some ethical boundary by airing his distaste on the public forum that is the internet, instead of in a staff breakroom, but maybe he just saved you a bunch of money because anywhere you go there will be teachers who are good decent ethical humans and teachers who hate they’re jobs.
It’s important to consider the difference in perspective of someone who works at a school as opposed to someone who attends one. When you begin attending a program it can feel special and wonderful and all that, but when you work at a school (if you are a disillusioned broken husk of human like I am) what you see is a great wave being churned through a machine, new faces marching past hoping perhaps to become the next great artist. Unfortunately the odds are that not everyone who makes a tuition payment is a groundbreaking genius.
When Boudinot talks about how raw talent plays a large role in a person’s success he might be over simplifying things, but he also has a point. We were not all born with equal gifts and to a certain degree “talent” does separate students. And the odds are stacked against a roomful of geniuses all getting put in the same classroom. Look at the number of BFA and MFA programs in the United States, and look at the number of students in each class. The nature of higher ed can be a numbers game. I straddled a line between the faculty and the administration. On the one side there’s faculty complaining that the new crop of students aren’t as dedicated as they should be and that the people being admitted aren’t good enough to succeed in the program. On the other side there’s the administration calling for ever higher enrollment numbers in order to keep the cash flowing through the institutions gluttonous veins. At the intersection of these two divergent groups is a disconnect. So when Boudinot complains about less talented students sometimes he does overstep the line from hyperbole to intolerably mean, but he’s also observing a broken system from inside a muddy trench. It is this very system that drove me away from working in higher education because I no longer felt comfortable taking a paycheck from poor debt incurring students.
There’s a Salon article that hits a lot of great points, so you should read that too because not all of us are that great at writing and Laura Miller at Salon.com is better at this than I am.